Metro's bus and subway workers went on a wildcat strike yesterday, forcing thousands of surprised and unhappy transit riders into their automobiles. It was a day of general inconvenience and misery as an enormous areawide traffic jam added to the city's bad air and bad attitude in the depths of summer.

Despite a back-to-work federal court order signed late yesterday, there was no certain way of predicting whether Metro's bus drivers, subway operators, mechanics and station attendants would return to work today.

When word of the court action first reached the picket lines at the various Metro garages late yesterday afternoon, there was uniform agreement that it was not enough to make them go back.

"I'm not really sure what's going to happen at this point," Metro general manager Theodore C. Lutz said. "We're going to do the best we can to get going again."

Nobody was happy yesterday.

Hundreds of commuters were stranded at bus stops and subway stations yesterday morning . . . or spent one hour driving the half-mile from Spout Run to Rosslyn on the George Washington Parkway . . . or tried to find a parking place downtown when there were no parking places downtown. Tempers were frayed.

Dr. Arthur Wein, an orthopedic surgeon, could not get his ElDorado Cadillac into his parking garage at 1715 I St. NW, because it was already full. "I think they ought to be hanged for this," he said.

The strike was strictly a wildcat action, and officials of Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union joined with Metro in labeling it as unauthorized. The Metro employes apparently struck over a cost-of-living pay increase that they think they should have received in Wednesday's weekly paycheck.

"I fell bad (about stranded commuters)," striking bus driver Jesse Crawford said at the Silver Spring terminal. "But you got to look at it. If the police in Prince George's County can go out on strike and endanger my life, if the postal workers can go out on strike and I can't get no mail, or mail out my bills, why can't I go on strike"

Metro officials estimated that about 100 picketers managed to bring the entire transit system to a halt. That is quite a feat. It means that 500,000 trips that people would normally make on public transit in one day were diverted or cancelled. It means Metro lost at least quarter of a million dollars in revenue.

The Metro board of directors and Lutz were adopting a hard line, and the board adopted a resolution supporting Lutz at its regular meeting yesterday. Lutz called the strike "senseless and illegal." At least 180 drivers, motormen and mechanics had been officially suspended by Metro yesterday evening.

"I think we are on the side of the angels," Metro board chairman Joseph S. Wholey told the board. "The riding public will put pressure on elected officials to settle this fast - to give it away. I don't think we should do that . . . We're not going to cave in."

The cornerstone of Metro's stop-the-strike effort yesterday was to seek a court order ordering the strikers back the work. Federal District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer signed such an order at 4:05 p.m.

In his order, Oberdorfer placed requirements not only on the union, which disclaims responsibility for the strike, and the 123 individuals Metro fingered as responsible for it, but also on Metro itself to expedite bargaining on the key issue - the unpaid cost-of-living allowance.

Metro contends that the increase is an item for binding arbitration under contract with Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The contract expired April 30.

Judge Oberdorfer insisted in his hearing that Metro post some kind of bond to further guarantee the strikers that they receive their cost-of-living increase retroactively if such an award is made by the arbitration panel. Metro had publicly promised to do just that.

"I am trying to form an order that doesn't just command compliance but that invites compliance," oberdorfer said. The order included a requirement that Metro post a $40,000 per week bond, beginning July l, and continue adding to that bond until the cost-of-living issue is settled.

He also directed Metro and Local 689 to expedite the arbitration process on the cost-of-living question alone.

Metro employes began delivering the order to the 123 cited individuals yesterday evening.

Shortly after the order was signed, Jerry A. Moore, a member of both the D.C. Council and the Metro board, showed up at the Northern bus garage, at 14th and Kennedy streets NW, to explain it to the drivers there.

A few minutes after Moore left, a spokesman for the group told the strikers everyone could go home, but should return to Northern early today in order to put up a picket line again.

Paul Stanley, a striking employe from another garage, told those there that, "They're putting up $40,000 which we don't get."

Northern, curiously, was the only garage which still had buses on the street during yesterday evening's rush hour. About 109 of the normal run of 295 buses were out.

One of them, an S2, meandered along H Street NW in the heart of the 5 p.m. rush hour, but was the only bus in sight on a street that is normally full of them.

There were other incongruities throughout the day. In Silver Spring, where Montgomery County runs a very popular bus service called Ride-On, the buses began delivering commuters to the inoperative Metro subway like clockwork.

Later, after the Ride-On supervisors figured out what had happened, seven buses were sent all the way downtown. "We felt that there were a lot of Montgomery County taxpayers who didn't have a way of getting to work," said Bruce Carter, supervisor of the Ride-on program. Ride-on did not go into Washington to bring the commuters home in the evening.

On Shirley Highway, the exclusive lanes for buses and car pools were even more exclusive than usual during the morning rush hour - because there were no buses.Virginia police ticketed driver-only cars as they always

In the other lanes of Shirley Highway - which are normally bumper to bumper only in the last mile before the 14th Street Bridge - the parking lot effect trailed almost 10 miles back to Springfield.

The Virginia police relaxed the car-pool-only rule during the evening rush hour.

Some tourists, who have been riding the subway in enormous numbers, found Washington an awful city yesterday.

"We'd like to never come back," said Marion Shake of Indianapolis as she and her daughter walked around the Mall at 9 a.m. Her husband, she said, was still circling for a parking place.

"We came Sunday and we're leaving today. We were going to stay until Friday," she said.

The strike has its roots in a discontented union that, by the admission of its president, George R. Davis, is beyond the control of the leadership. This is despite the fact that the drivers and train operators are among the best paid in the United States at an hourly wage of $8.16. With normal overtime, the typical driver averages $18,880 a year, Metro estimates.

A key in building to those salary levels has been a clause in the Metro-unionn contract requiring Metro to pay quarterly increases in the cost of living that match the Consumer Price Index penny for penny. In the current quarter just expired April 30, the base wage rose from $7.27 to 8.16.

Metro's board of directors has been seeking to negotiate downward that cost of living payment - through a less frequent adjustment or a less beneficial percentage of the Consumer Price Index. The union, understandably, has resisted the effort in negotiations.

The contract between Metro and the union expired April 30, and the two are required by federal law to submit unresolved issues to binding arbitration.

That has been a long process - and each passing day has increased union irritation. A quarter passed July 1 - when a cost-of-living adjustment of 20 cents an hour in the base rate would be due. Because the issue was under arbitration, Metro took the position that it should not be paid.

The union was forced legally to agree, Davis said. He told the membership just that at a raucous regularly scheduled union meeting Tuesday night. Nonetheless, some members there twice offered a motion calling for a strike. Davis ruled the motion out of order. The microphone was seized. Davis left the meeting, along with the members of his executive board. by voice vote, a strike was agreed upon.

Contributing to this and other stories about the Metro bus and subway strike were Washington Post staff writers La-Barbara Bowman, Patricia Camp, Christopher Dickey, Martha M. Hamilton, Janis Johnson, Alfred E. Lewis, Stephen J. Lynton, Keith B. Richburg, Judith Valente, Paul W. Valente, Lexie Verdon, Joseph D. Whitaker and Juan Williams